There is no division that possesses quite the lore of the NFC East. Every individual matchup shares its own prolonged history, rife with tons of legendary games that have contributed to each rivalry.
Both Miracles at the Meadowlands, Terrell Owens’ memorable Eagles battles with the Dallas defense, and the Cowboys’ countless season-ending showdowns with each of its conference counterparts are just a few of the puzzle pieces that construct a rich four-pronged chronology, and every year more games are added to that list.
2021 should be no different.
But unlike other years in which every team posed a legitimate threat to play January football, this year’s NFC East roundtable is split in two in terms of projected competitiveness. And despite boasting three teams (Dallas, Philly, New York) in the top 10 of the NFL’s easiest schedules, two of those three (Philly, New York) have been predicted to end the campaign near the bottom of the league’s power rankings.
The Cowboys, meanwhile, are expected by many to emerge atop the foursome at the season’s close, and the team’s offseason activities headlined by Dak Prescott’s gargantuan new contract, have only solidified those stakeholder’s opinions further.
But another emerging contender has reared its ugly head as a potential nightmarish contender to crush Dallas’ playoff dreams. Washington represents the antagonist in the Cowboys’ unwritten playoff novel, and its gnarly defensive front anchors a unit many expect to be a dominant force next season.
Dallas will play the first of its yearly double with the Football Team on the road Dec 12, before Washington will try and spoil its familiar foe’s Christmas cheer at AT&T stadium on Dec. 26. And with both teams forecast as neck-and-neck competitors throughout 2021’s duration, these two matchups could not only shift the needle in a certain direction, but be the decisive difference between a tiebreaker between the two.
So what will the affairs look like?
Well, point of emphasis A begins right in the trenches with Dallas’ hogs up front, and Washington’s devastating defensive line.
The health and overall production of Dallas’ protective troupe is a huge question mark, and Washington will be eager to exploit any weaknesses that appears to be vulnerable. A generational talent in Chase Young, plus young guns like Montez Sweat and Daron Payne in the mix fuse to form a scary collection of havoc-wreaking rabble-rousers.
Washington’s defense surrendered the second-least amount of yards per game (304.6) in 2020, and that metric was largely sparked by the group’s secondary working with the front’s ability to get to the quarterback.
While Washington registered the 14th slot league-wide in total run defense, it was second in containing the pass. Defensive back play from the likes of Kamren Curl and Kendall Fuller (seven interceptions between the two) spearheaded a group that tied for second in passing takeaways (16), while Jack Del Rio’s switch to 4-3 from 3-4 unearthed a brilliance that had long been waiting to shine on the team’s back line.
It will be a hotly-contested battle of the minds as Del Rio and Kellen Moore match wits. The ‘Boys will need Dak Prescott and his slew of savvy receiving threats to be clicking on all cylinders, while Del Rio’s main focus will start and end with the passing game.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, Ryan Fitzpatrick’s chemistry with his budding receiving corps will be a difference-maker for Washington offensively. Terry McLaurin was a top-15 target in 2020 with 1,118 yards to his name, and 17 receptions of 20-plus yards, while the addition of Curtis Samuel vaults the WR corps to another level with his deep-ball prowess.
The team is below average in the ground game (seventh-to-last in combined rushing yards through ‘20), and will likely trot out two running backs on a regular basis in ‘21: J.D. McKissic and Antonio Gibson, the latter of whom is nursing a toe injury back to full health. If Dallas can scrounge together some life in the linebacking department, it should be just fine, which leaves a good majority of the overall matchup up to Prescott and Fitzpatrick.
What’s left from there for the ‘Boys defensively will befall upon Tank Lawrence and Co.’s ability to suppress Fitz’s magic in the backfield, and of course the secondary to ensure his helpful assistants (his receivers) aren’t able to create some sorcery of their own.
What else can you expect in today’s day and age of football other than the most important factors to be decided through the air attack?
The verdict for the Cowboys: win the passing battle, win the war — and the NFC East’s outcome could very well be linked to that game within the games that Washington and Dallas will face off in.